A thoughtful (and disturbing) take on US education

Dear Mr. Miller,

I am an admirer of your work and a former teacher whose hobby is comparative education (a little-known discipline founded by the French thinker Marc-Antoine Jullien in 1817). While it may be well be true that Bush and his acolytes badmouth America’s schools as a pretext for privatizing, evangelizing or dynamiting them, it is the mediocrity of American education which supplies them with the cartridges for their crusade. Consider the evidence:

According to the French social historian Emmanuel Todd (a philo-American), the center of research in many scientific fields has shifted to Europe, if only because immigrants to the U.S., who formerly originated from Europe and for many years quietly raised the level of U.S. education in the sciences, now come chiefly from countries (Mexico, the Philippines, etc.) not known for scientific achievement. At the same time (and in no way contradicting Todd), Elisabeth Altschull, the Franco-American writer on educational issues, notes the preponderance of non-American scientists in U.S. graduate schools and attributes their disproportionate numbers to the feebleness of science courses at lower levels of American education.

E.D. Hirsch, the professor of English at the University of Virginia who has launched a movement to toughen American schools, states that he has ceased to apprise American educators of the decline in their country’s educational attainments, because his audiences simply cannot bear to confront it. The article that you distributed to your readers is a disingenuous case in point: while boasting that SAT scores have risen, the author skirts the recent, deliberate dumbing-down of college boards to compensate for sagging student performances. Like the intransigeant American doctors and other chauvinists who defend the U.S. health system by incriminating America’s immigrants (while ignoring the rise in infant mortality in all segments of the U.S.
population), the author of the article that you sent us attributes America’s undistinguished
record on international evaluations to unfair competition with “small countries” and asymetrical “test populations”. Translation: We Americans inhabit a big, open land teeming with
wretched refuse which pulls down our stats, while the homogeneous postage-stamp states of Europe educate only their élites.

Pishposh. As E.D. Hirsch has observed, the classrooms of France, with the world’s second-greatest pool of immigrants per capita, are as ethnically diverse as any in the U.S., and
France now squeezes sixty-eight per cent of its students into the senior year of academic high
school. The article that you clipped for your readers mentions the international tests TIMSS
and PISA, but fails to explain what they are. TIMSS stands for “Trends in Mathematics and
Science Studies”. It measures student attainment and (to ensure comparability) encourages all
participating countries to eliminate any question whose subject has not yet been covered by the
national curriculum at the time of the test. PISA (Project on International Student Assessment), the brainchild of the OECD (the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a thinktank of developed countries), evaluates students on their ability to make future use of their skills.

These tests are hardly anti-American plots. They deliver salutary jolts to complacent educational systems (including those of France and Germany).

Yes, Bush and Co criticize American public education, but so did Bill Clinton (on three occasions in 1999 alone). Must we suspect Clinton of harboring ulterior motives? And what if, like Bush, Clinton indeed possessed a hidden agenda? How would it cancel the proof of America’s decline?

For how much longer must E.D. Hirsch and other reformers softpedal the evidence (provided by international testing) lest it jar the sensibilities of Americans blind to the mediocrity of education in our country?

Thank you for your attention. Sincerely — Daniel Birnbaum, Paris

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